A new era in Austro-Turkish relations amid the Russian-Ukrainian war?


When Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer spoke by telephone with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on April 10, it was not just the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine that was on the agenda. Granted, that was the initial and most pressing reason for the conversation, but it soon became apparent that a new era between the two nations might be about to begin.

Let’s focus first on Nehammer’s visit to Ukraine and soon after on Moscow. If these two trips had taken place several decades earlier, no one would have been surprised, because the Austrian capital, Vienna, was a hallmark of world diplomacy. This comment is not only based on the fact that the capital is home to much of the administration of the United Nations and related agencies, but it is an established fact that Austrian politicians knew the dividing line between, on the one hand, engaging in proactive diplomacy and, on the other hand, the other, trying to lecture other nations on what to do or what not to do. To illustrate this further, Vienna was the venue for international meetings as a default and this very often included preliminary meetings behind closed doors before becoming public.

Over time, and more so in the more recent past, the country has engaged in an inward-looking trend, a trend that began long before the onset of the global health situation caused by COVID-19.

Frequent changes in government, including high-level ministerial positions, a number of scandals involving high-profile politicians (remember Ibiza, to name just one) and, of course, the withdrawal Former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s comprehensive list of all public offices also dominated national as well as international headlines, instead of which conflict Austrian diplomats were eager to help settle.

Not surprisingly, given the topic of global concern at hand, immediately after the planned visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin was confirmed by Nehammer on his social media account, two camps arose. The former challenged Nehammer, and in principle, criticized his journey before it had even begun; yielding to an aggressor was the dominant tone. However, there was a second opinion giving the Chancellor the benefit of the doubt and focusing on his good intentions. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg confirmed this prospect at the request of Viennese journalists.

Therefore, it remains to be seen whether Nehammer entering the ring that says “let’s stop the war in Ukraine immediately” was based on national considerations and intended for national consumption, so to speak, or was meant to be a throwback to the old Austria. role of mediator of world peace in the context of the search for a diplomatic solution. If this time it doesn’t work, one thing is clear: the person who started this illegal war is responsible for the failure of any potential talks and any chance for lasting peace, and no one else.

Importance of phone calls

Turkish and Austrian leaders have held talks twice in the past six days. During the first conversation, Nehammer informed Erdoğan about his upcoming trip to Moscow and Erdoğan for his part reiterated that Turkey is ready to support any kind of peace initiative.

Ankara’s relevance to this process, which will hopefully soon end the bloodshed and suffering in Ukraine, cannot be overemphasized, as Nehammer had only briefed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Erdoğan was the only leader of another nation-state and NATO member who was therefore seen as a confidant and partner of choice for Nehammer in discussions on the future roadmap, a very welcome development.

Regardless of the rather skeptical summary of his visit to Putin and the overall gloomy picture he painted about how quickly the atrocities inflicted by Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian population will end, he tried to find a diplomatic solution. Even though it didn’t yield the expected results, he tried nonetheless. Turkey, for its part, has done the same – making it clear that it opposes Russian invasion and aggression against neighboring Ukraine while keeping diplomatic channels with Moscow open as wide as possible and adopting a different approach to sanctions from that of the European Union. But Ankara and Vienna are vehemently and explicitly demanding an end to the war and, in doing so, making it clear who is responsible: Putin.

Vienna fully supports the option of holding a new round of talks between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul, further emphasizing Turkey’s position. But Ankara knows only too well that it needs the support of all possible factions and parties if they materialize and lead to a solution.

More questions on the bilateral table

In his assessment of the phone calls, Erdoğan pointed out that other topics are also on the bilateral agenda. The re-establishment of mutually beneficial contacts between the two countries is a long-awaited development and we must be clear: it is Vienna that has too often misinterpreted reality, progress and reform in modern Turkey, not the other way around. .

Two topics top the list. First, the upgrade of the EU-Turkey Customs Union, including agriculture and services to be added, and the liberalization of visas for bona fide visitors and businessmen planning to travel from Turkey to Austria.

For a time, it was expected that only heavyweights such as France or Germany could pass the two points, with the rest of the EU member states following suit. Perhaps Austria’s new positive and honest approach to partner country Turkey will change this perception; Vienna could perhaps become one of Ankara’s closest allies in this endeavor. Last but not least, by recalibrating its foreign policy, Austria could perhaps succeed in reformulating its domestic policy as well.

When the war is over

Everyone hopes that the war in Ukraine will soon be over. So there will be a post-war reality on the ground. Turkey, Austria, NATO, the EU and everyone else must continue to make one point clear to Putin: the invasion of another nation must be a thing of the past and will not be tolerated. Eventually, a new, peaceful generation will emerge even – or shall we say particularly – in Russia and replace the men in gray suits protected from their own electorate and wielding unhappy power over their armed forces with democracy-loving rulers, sparing young conscripts who wouldn’t normally become killing machines unless told.

We talked about Austria’s previous role in the world of diplomacy and how it became a hallmark of not lecturing other nations, but listening first to all parties to a conflict . Yet, in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, strong wording is the only alternative to inactivity. Nehammer conveying the message that enough is enough was always part of a last ditch diplomatic effort. Every EU leader should follow in his footsteps and travel to Moscow – not to woo Putin but to let him know of the world’s displeasure with his actions. On the Chancellor’s return, he painted the rather skeptical picture mentioned above about whether or not Putin can be convinced to change course – may others also try, may talks in Istanbul begin soon, may peace return to Ukrainian lands. Even in the event of war, the opening and use of a diplomatic channel, because stopping the bloodshed by any diplomatic or economic means, is a human duty.

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